After filling their bellies, Yazmin wanted to look at the city. Stellan wanted to just enjoy the rare comforts of a bed. However, Yazmin’s excitement was infectious, and her good mood seemed to transfer to him. He agreed to come with her, and they set off.
Somehow, the streets had even more people on them. It seemed to Stellan that the inhabitants had motion in their blood, always driving them in one direction or other. He felt a bit overwhelmed by the mass of bodies pushing their way around them. Every building they passed had at least two stories, which made Stellan feel greatly oppressed and boxed in. He’d finally made it inside a Line city, and it only gave him anxiety.
“Stop that!” he chastised himself and tried to dispel the suffocating feelings away.
They receded somewhat but were still simmering at the bottom of his soul. Yazmin, on the other hand, looked captivated. The big buildings and colorful clothing delighted her to no end. Stellan watched her glue herself to shop windows trying to catch a peek of their interior. Turning around, she marveled at a young woman in a very frilly dress, without sleeves, in place of which long white gloves reaching all the way to the elbows covered her skin. The woman’s dress was in a subdued shade of pink, and her auburn hair was in a braid going down to her lower back. Animal-shaped hairpins with eyes of rubies and sapphires embellished her hair. The longing in Yazmin’s eyes made Stellan want to buy her a dress immediately, even despite his financial situation.
“Hey,” he said, waving her closer.
“Yeah?” she came over and began walking in step with him.
“How about I get you a nice dress as soon as we finish up with this evaluation business?” Stellan said, throwing her a look over his shoulder.
Yazmin’s whole face attempted to turn into a smile. The skin around her eyes wrinkled so much from her joy that Stellan was afraid it might stay like that forever.
“I’d like that very much,” Yazmin said, then gave a curt nod, trying her best to stifle her outburst.
Stellan knew it was still there, and all the evidence he needed was her iron two-hand grip on his upper arm. Feeling happy and content, Stellan walked the streets with Yazmin for a few more hours, not going anywhere in particular and just enjoying the day.
They got lost, of course, and a guardsman had to escort them halfway back until they could get their bearings. Yazmin thanked the man profusely as he gave her, and only her, a curt bow, then walked away. They reached the building just after dusk when the streets were illuminated by captured flames inside transparent boxes, rimmed on each side by black metal. Stellan had never seen lights like these, so Yazmin had to drag him away from his anchored position next to a man who was igniting the substance inside.
Dinner was very bountiful and well made. Stellan saw why lots of people vied to live in a place like this. There was always light, the food was good, and the walls stood ever guarding against any foes. Yes, he could grow accustomed to this in a flash. He interlaced his fingers on the back of his head and leaned into his chair, chewing the last remnants of food and watching the ceiling. After Yazmin finished eating, they both went upstairs to bed. Morning came quicker than Stellan expected. They dressed, Stellan opting to leave his gear behind as there were armed men at every corner outside. Yazmin grabbed her waterskin in hand and followed Stellan out the door.
Someone kicked his feet under him. He fell to his knees, and a shortsword found itself resting on his neck. Behind him, he felt the edge of another weapon pushing against his back just where someone who wanted you to bleed out quickly would strike. Stellan heard Yazmin uncork her waterskin.
“Don’t!” he commanded. “They have a mage.”
Stellan faced a man whose hands were engulfed in a calm flame. The closest man who held the shortsword to his neck had a mask on. Someone came from behind and roughly grabbed Stellan’s wrists, twisting them around his back.
“Stay calm, Yazmin,” Stellan said in a flat voice while a giant man bound his hands. “Don’t do anything.”
The big man hoisted him up then pushed him back inside the room. The two shortsword carriers came in quickly after, always keeping their edges keen. One of them moved to the side and grabbed Yazmin’s waterskin, then threw it to the side. He locked both of her arms behind her and left the shortsword on her neck. Stellan’s shirt was torn, and his upper body inspected carefully for any straps holding additional concealed weapons. The fire mage entered, and so did another man who’s sleeves flapped softly in a room with no wind. The big man finished his search and stepped back. A shortsword immediately found its way to Stellan’s throat.
Three more men entered the room. The first was the man who examined the blade yesterday. The second Stellan didn’t recognize. The third was Silvermight. He came in last and closed the door. He wore regular clothes, as much as a fitted bright suit could be called that. Silvermight glanced over Stellan’s scars, and his eyes flickered with emotion for a short moment.
“Release the man for gods sake,” Silvermight said with displeasure. “You’ve got his wife at swordpoint.”
The giant muscled man hoisted Stellan to his feet.
“We are here on the King’s orders,” Silvermight said, “apologies for the restraints, but we have to conduct some tests that might show you as less than reputable. That is the reason behind all this security.” He waved a hand to encompass all the men with hard looks in their eyes.
“King’s orders,” Stellan said, scowling, and contemplated spitting on the ground.
Stellan might believe these were king’s men if they hadn’t dragged the lump of muscle behind him. He was a dead giveaway. These men weren’t officials. They were thugs. Trained thugs, sure, but still thugs. Stellan found it odd that he didn’t feel afraid but mainly wondered how so many people fit inside the room. Either he’d misjudged its size, or the thugs had really good coordination. He decided to believe the former as they had taken him out in a flurry of rehearsed and practiced moves.
“How to get out of this?” he wondered, not giving up as easily as these people probably wanted.
“We will conduct a simple test, sir Hammerwind,” Silvermight said and gestured to the unknown man who had come right before him. “Archmage, if you will.”
The lump of muscle gave Stellan’s sword to the Archmage, who looked at it for a few moments.
“Yes,” he said, deep in thought, “I see what you mean by the strange coloring of the blade. Very peculiar indeed. I did some research, and apparently, the blades have never displayed such color. Tampering might be involved just as you suggested, although I wouldn’t know the method how. I would postulate-”
“Thank you, Archmage,” Silvermight cut him off. “The method is unimportant. What is important is this young man’s attempt to beat out his fellow seekers by underhanded means.”
Silvermight took a step forward and wound up face to face with Stellan. The shortsword’s edge bit into his skin, reminding of its deadly presence. Stellan got the idea loud and clear. If he moved, he was dead.
“Why would you try to swindle your benevolent King like that, son?” Silvermight asked, disappointment in his voice.
Stellan didn’t reply for a moment as he struggled to make out a plan. Nothing good came to mind, or at least nothing that would spare Yazmin suffering.
“I can’t do anything to the sword,” Stellan spoke as calmly as possible, but a little note of frustration made its way out despite his efforts. “I’ve just killed all the breachborn I could for the past fifteen years, nothing more.”
“That would make it close to four breachborn a day,” Silvermight made the calculation out loud then nodded. “Possible, with men and money. So, where are your men?” Silvermight asked, sounding like he already knew the answer.
Stellan supposed as much. Silvermight wasn’t some nobody with a grudge or some misguided patriot. This whole thing was well orchestrated. These men weren’t gathered off the street. This was their occupation.
“I’ve stirred a hornet’s nest,” Stellan made the realization with sadness.
“No men. I had my father’s help for a few years, but then he was killed,” Stellan spoke evenly, his eyes always on Silvermight.
“I see. Even in a situation like that, money will buy you a lot of goodwill and much fighting power,” Silvermight continued speaking in a tone much less refined and made disgusting by all the condescension. “How much money have you spent hiring skilled fighters and where pray tell are they now, seeing as how you made it here only accompanied by your beautiful wife?”
“I’ve spent no money on mercenaries,” Stellan said slowly, trying to figure a way out.
All of his hard work would be for nothing if they killed him and Yazmin here.
“Yazmin,” he thought and wanted to look at how she was doing, but that would give leave to the shortsword to cut his throat. “She got sent here to explicitly avoid death, and my bad luck is going to get her killed.”
“The Hammerwind clan has means as I recall,” Silvermight said and took a step back.
“They do, but…I’m not a part of it anymore,” Stellan said with no small amount of sadness, to his surprise.
“Yes, yours and your father’s banishment. So just to see if I have the facts correct. You have no money and spent the last fifteen years just killing breachborn and surviving on people’s good graces. For most of that time, you were alone, by your own admission.”
“Yes,” Stellan said with a sigh, which made the edge at his throat draw blood.
“Then you see my predicament?” Silvermight spread his arms wide, “I cannot verify your claims without an extensive and lengthy survey through the territories you visited. The decision regarding the Defender Highlord has to be done today. And in order for that to happen-”
“I have to disappear,” Stellan said, resigned.
The emotions brought on by the injustice of the situation threatened to spill out, so Stellan grit his teeth and sucked in air through them. He managed to keep calm, barely.
“Spare the girl,” Stellan said and almost nodded towards her before catching himself. “Yazmin, my wife, she hasn’t done anything wrong. I met her about three weeks ago and took her with me as is the ancient custom. A simple examination will show she isn’t capable of what you’re implying she did to the blade.”
Stellan paused and smiled crookedly at the Archmage.
“Maybe no one is,” he finished with as much sarcasm as he dared.
The Archmage scoffed and mumbled something under his breath at the jab. Silvermight looked Stellan in the eyes again and held his gaze for a few long moments. His eyes slid down to the scars on Stellan’s arm and upper body.
“Admirable indeed,” Silvermight said and gestured for Yazmin to be brought forth. “I have been given leeway by the King in this decision. Much like his majesty, I believe that all capable fighters are needed in the coming Fracture, so I believe he will support my decision to spare your wife and enlist her in our military’s mage battalion. Take her away.” Silvermight waved the man holding Yazmin away.
She began to struggle against him.
“No, no,” she screamed.
“Yazmin,” Stellan raised his voice, and she calmed down. “Don’t resist. This way you’ll get to live.”
The man holding her continued to haul her off to the door.
“What about you?” Yazmin said with desperation as she was dragged into the corridor.
The door to the room began to close, and just before it did, Stellan gave Yazmin a short, reassuring smile.
With Yazmin out of the room, the group of men came closer to Stellan.
“Well, sir Hammerwind, that just leaves you. How to resolve the situation?” Silvermight put his index finger on his lips and began to tap them.
Stellan said nothing, he had begged once before, and that hadn’t gotten him out of a bad situation. He did not see how it would help now.
“No?” Silvermight said, looking at him with expectation. “Not a single spare me, or I wasn’t thinking clearly. Just your wife’s safety, huh?” As he continued to speak, Stellan got more confused.
“You really aren’t going to make it easier on my conscience?” Silvermight sighed.
Stellan just smiled at him again, this time with deadly determination.
“You see!” Silvermight slapped his hands together and pointed at Stellan. “This is what I mean, unflinching to the end. Is such dedication to the survival of the race so much to ask for?” He shook his head in disappointment again and stepped closer to Stellan, cupping his ears in a oddly gentle and fatherly gesture.
“I’ve decided not to have you executed Stellan Hammerwind, but this will not come at an easy cost.”
Stellan shrugged his shoulders by instinct, not even sure if the man could see him.
“Amazing,” Silvermight said, and his eyes sparkled. “If only things were different and I’d met you before now…” He stepped back and straightened his back.
“Sir Hammerwind, for the crimes of falsifying the information a Breachthorn blade provides and gaining unlawful entry to the Riftseeker evaluation ceremony, with the power vested in me by our rightful king Hildric Stormsummer, I sentence you to a penal, hard labor regiment until the time of the next Fracture when you will be called upon, as is your duty, to fight against the menace of the breachborn. Due to your commitment to the king’s cause, I am prepared to add an amnesty clause, which will require you to slay one thousand and one hundred more breachborn before our next meeting. If that is accomplished, I will personally ensure that the King’s mercy is extended to you.”
Stellan stood and listened as Silvermight continued to spew words out of his mouth. The sound of his own voice seemed to be something Silvermight enjoyed as he no doubt enjoyed beyond all measure of normal.
“The inner and outer walls are home to many good folk from the kingdom who would do well to have their lands clear. There you may attempt to redeem yourself.”
“That last part isn’t going to cut it,” Stellan managed to say a word edgewise and Silvermight’s right brow twitched with contempt. “The tactics I use will not work on an prepared enemy. With some manpower I could probably slay that number but you can’t use me to clean your leftover breachborn.”
Silvermight’s chin moved up and he gave him a look of anger. Stellan noted that his man did not like backtalk.
“We are not here to discuss accommodations for you. This is a sentencing.”
“I understand that, but if that’s the choice I’m given, its better you kill me right now, because I won’t be able to accomplish the task.”
Silvermight came close to Stellan’s face, and he felt a smaller point of something sharp below his chin. Silvermight had produced a short knife or dagger. By the way it was held, a stab from it would clog up Stellan’s windpipe, making his suffocate on his blood. The murderous intent was as clear as day.
“Let me go outside the walls,” Stellan said to Silvermight, “that’s where my hunting ground is.”
“How foolish do you take me for?” Silvermight hissed. “You’ll just run back to your clan and ask for help.”
“Even if I could,” Stellan countered immediately, “those people won’t help me. At the very least, because they don’t squabble with the crown. But you’re missing the picture here. You have my wife.”
Silvermight blinked, and Stellan could almost see machinations stir inside his head.
“As long as you do not harm her and assure her safety. I will comply with your sentence.”
“Not as if you have a choice,” Silvermight said, contemplative. “But, I appreciate your position.” He stepped back to the mages.
“I’ll allow it,” Silvermight made a curt nod, and the shortsword moved away from the small wound on Stellan’s neck. “Remember your words today, Hammerwind, you’ve spoken them in front of witnesses, so there will be no backing out.”
“Never even crossed my mind. I’ve things to do with my life still,” Stellan said and stretched his back and shoulders.
“Take him to the wagon after dusk. The drunk will take care of the rest,” Silvermight spoke to his henchmen on Stellan’s left, then to him, he said. “I sincerely hope to hear of your successful exploits, sir Hammerwind. Farewell.”
Silvermight left the room without another word. His mages followed, leaving the burly, giant man and the one Stellan’s left to watch over him until dark.